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Iran’s economic ties with Africa: Responding to Western media analysis

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Responding to an Economist article on a perceived battle between Israel and Iran for friends on the African continent, S.H. Razavipour stresses that suspicion around Iran's motives merely highlights Western hypocrisy.

In the past decade, Africa has become a cauldron of competing interests between new and old actors. Whereas in the 19th century it was just a handful of countries that benefited and profited from Africa’s riches – namely from its extractive resources, cheap labour and not to mention slavery – now it seems that the tide has shifted with ‘new kids on the block’.

With increased competition by the emerging powers from the global South, it would appear that Western actors can no longer claim a monopoly over Africa’s resources. However, this does not mean that the emerging powers have totally eclipsed Western influence in Africa. Africa’s global trade patterns are still intricately tied to former colonial empires while for most African countries the North still remains the leading trade partner. This is because most African economies built up their post-independence economies by locking themselves into Northern markets and relying on investment from these economies.

While this new competition – from countries like Brazil and Venezuela from South America, India and China from Asia, Australia, Turkey and even Israel and Iran from the Middle East – unleashes new impulses around Africa’s geo-strategic importance in the global system and a definite challenge to the exclusive benefits that the Western countries had enjoyed from Africa until recently, it does appear that the same thing will happen with the new comers too.

Some of these new actors will find better ways to cooperate with the older ones to behave like a cartel to increase their benefits. They will tow the line with the big brothers so that they are also given a seat at the table to claim their slice of the cake.

Others like China because of their political conflicts and competitions with America and other capitalist countries will prefer to find their own business interests in Africa and follow a ‘go it alone’ strategy, although this is not to suggest that Beijing as well is not part of the global capitalist cartel.

The issue at hand is whether the new comers to the global capitalist cartel will be treated with equal rights and access, or whether they will be used as a means to an end because of their financial muscle to bail out the old Northern capitalist cartel that has suffered as a result of the financial crisis. Better yet, are these new actors willing to transform the structures of international capital accumulation by joining the capitalist roundtable, or is it more of the same?

One thing is certain though, and that is breaking into the global capitalist cartel is very much an exclusive club.

Perhaps that is why we still face the juxtaposition of some mainstream Western media and think tanks cautioning against new comers like China as a ‘threat’ to Africa while we are also told that China is an ‘opportunity’ for Africa.

Yet such warnings are more accusatory when it comes to actors like Iran’s competing engagements in Africa.


On 4 February 2010 The Economist published an article entitled ‘A search for allies in a hostile world’. The general tone of the article was aimed at examining how Iran’s ‘proclaimed ambitions in Africa’ were particularly worrying for Israel’s attempt to keep the few friends it has on the Africa continent.

While The Economist has been noted for raising sparring debates about the pending implications the new emerging actors from the South will have for Western engagements in Africa,[1] this report on Iran's posing a strategic threat to Israel’s ‘diplomacy and goodwill policy’ in Africa seems to be a little mischievous and cheeky to say the least.

Apart from stoking, emotionally charged language like ‘Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s controversial president’, the article raises spectres by warning that Iran’s growing political and economic relations with Africa are an attempt at making Israel nervous. But there is something more to this here than just the effort to make this into a battle between Iran and Israel for influence and friends.

What The Economist article does is promote a discourse that is similar to the ‘yellow peril’ argument. By talking about the visits by Iranian diplomats to Africa both with traditional and non-traditional partners like Kenya, the article hopes that readers will become more aware of Iran’s intent of finding friends in Africa which could undermine Western efforts of containing and isolating Iran.

By using the Israeli–Palestine conflict as a foundation to show that African countries will lend their support to the Palestine cause vis-à-vis Israel – or for that matter through Iran’s strengthened diplomatic engagements across the continent – and that African countries will not lend their voice to Western efforts around sanctions and other punitive actions against Iran through the UN, the article seems to project the notion that Tehran is on a mission in Africa which is somewhat out of the ordinary.

But is this really the case and what about the disingenuity? Let's consider Israel’s relationship with Africa.

Israel’s relations with Africa date back to the early days of the establishment as part of a carefully planned state-led project aimed at obtaining recognition for the Israeli sovereign state.

Forging relations with pariah regimes like the apartheid government of South Africa, Jerusalem identified that Pretoria provided a good opportunity to cooperate with the minority Afrikaner government and other such regimes across the continent to support each other against threats to state power and security against progressive movements seeking freedom, justice and democratic accountability.

By supplying these minority regimes with training and other military software and hardware, the proxy wars, interstate conflicts and intrastate tensions continue to remain a political burden and social scar on Africa’s landscape. Even today, diamond smuggling and arms trafficking are rumoured to also have an Israeli link at times.

And like all investors Israel has specialised in mining valuable metals and precious gems like diamonds and remains an integral participant in African markets.

From a political view, Israel is one of those countries that combines their benefit in cooperation with the old Western exploiters, and hence it has a good share in most of the businesses going on in Africa.

Therefore, it is a bit cheeky when the article claims that ‘Israel once had a lot of friends on the continent and wants to keep the few that remain’.

So why should it be a concern if Israel’s relations in Africa are being put at risk with Iran’s increasing diplomatic and economic footprint in Africa?

Like all countries Iran is also following its national interests. This is what international relations discourse tends to promote.

Therefore, it tends to be incredulous when the article mentions that Iran is helping Africans to produce their own cars and tractors and gives them cheaper technological science and technical services, as if this is not possible from a country like Iran or that there is something sinister behind these engagements.

What about the fact that those who are supporting Israel by the means of political and economic incentives also have their own hidden agendas?

To this end I would like to emphasise that Iran has the right like any other sovereign state to develop their relations with the developing South like others do. The willingness to assist countries of the Third World to develop their economies and advance their development must seen outside the realm that the ‘world is flat’ or that it can belong to only a sacrosanct few.

[1] See The Economist debate: Africa and China:



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